I'm all for middle-aged heroines having lots of sex – but I'm not convinced by Apple Tree Yard

Between the series' utterly unconvincing quickie in the House of Commons broom cupboard and Donald Trump's inauguration footage, it's been an unedifying week for this critic.

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I wanted to like Apple Tree Yard (Sundays, 9pm), the BBC’s four-part adaptation of Louise Doughty’s bestselling novel (which, incidentally, I haven’t read). First, I have the highest regard for its writer, Amanda Coe, whose own novel Getting Colder I strongly recommend for its emotional veracity. Second, I am, for perfectly obvious reasons, all in favour of dramas involving smart, middle-aged heroines who have lots of unbridled sex – even if I would draw the line at a quickie in a House of Commons broom cupboard, irrespective of whether or not the suffragette Emily Davison once hid herself there (the fear of being interrupted by Nicholas Soames leading his constituents on a tour would seem to me to put the breaks on the full orgasmic experience). But usually, to like something, you have to believe it – and I didn’t believe this hokum at all.

Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson) is a “top” geneticist with two adult children, one of whom will shortly make her a granny, and an academic husband, Gary (Mark Bonnar), who may or may not be sleeping with his research assistant. Over at the Commons, having given some not very convincing-sounding scientific evidence to a select committee, she meets a nameless man with a cocky manner and good hair (Ben Chaplin), and moments later they’re at it, in the aforementioned cupboard. Is this a one-off? No. But neither is it an affair, exactly. How can it be, when she knows nothing whatsoever about him, save that he is weirdly knowledgeable when it comes to CCTV cameras? (Because of this, she deduces that he is a spook, rather than just someone who works for, say, Chubb.) Mostly their relationship seems to be a game of sexual chicken – and one that we already know won’t end well (in an opening scene, we saw Carmichael in a prison van).

Look, location is one thing. Friskiness does occasionally occur in pub loos. I know this because I used to clean one. If she wants to whip off her knickers while he gets in the Chardonnays that’s fine by me: I’ll shove my disbelief in her handbag alongside them. But the nature of this couple’s attraction for one another was, from the outset, entirely obscure, a problem that is exacerbated by there being no chemistry between Chaplin and Watson. Their talk, like most sex talk, is banal, and when it’s not banal it’s plain silly. “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf,” Carmichael wrote in one of her middle-of-the-night sessions at her computer. What does this even mean? Ow-ow-ooooowww! Ordinarily, I might be tempted, at this point, to say something feminist about the dubious role rape looks likely to play in Apple Tree Yard’s creaking, listing plot. Unfortunately, laughter is the enemy not only of hot sex, but of a certain kind of anger, too.

What to say about the temazepam haze that was Donald Trump’s inauguration (21 January)? They feel so distant now, the robot movements of the weirdly gloved Melania, the stretched grins of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whose zombie rendition of “America the Beautiful” might as well have been a jingle for Baja Blast Mountain Dew. And yet I’m the polar opposite of tranquillised. I will be haunted by Kellyanne Conway’s terrifying drum majorette outfit for the rest of my life. In the small hours, as I fight insomnia and doom, it is Barron Trump’s inability to meet his father’s eye that will power my panic attacks.

Technically, we have reason to believe that Donald Trump is a human being: his stertorous breathing hints strongly at lungs, nasal passages and other corporeal actualities. But in my imagining he is the creation of a children’s entertainer who set out to make an orange balloon dog, only to keep blowing and blowing until . . . aaaah! Take heart, then, dear readers. Some balloons, rudely punctured, go with a bang. Others, air leaking slowly, end with a whimper. Either way, they do not last for ever. As my favourite Methodist, Hillary Clinton, doubtless tells herself every time she heads out into the woods at Chappaqua, this too shall pass. Meanwhile, in the months ahead, we must keep a good thought in our heads, and a metaphorical pin always in our hands. 

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Now listen to a discussion of Apple Tree Yard on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West